In an all-American final, No 4 seed Varvara Lepchenko won her first WTA 125 title at the LTP Women’s Open in Charleston with a 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4 triumph over Jamie Loeb on Sunday.
Serena [Williams] invited me to practice with her and we started hitting. She gave me some confidence, I would say. She's a great friend and she encouraged me to keep going. Just seeing that I could hit with her and seeing her play on the big stages when she's older than me - that inspired me as well, to keep going and keep dreaming big. Varvara Lepchenko
It took 35-year old Lepchenko 3 hours to get past Loeb, coming from a set down to lift the trophy and capturing the biggest title of her two-decade career
Afterwards, she explained how she had been on the brink of retirement.
“I was married, and then right before Covid, I got divorced,” Lepchenko said. “I was thinking before Covid and my divorce to retire, start a family, start a new life, but when that didn’t happen, the only thing that kept me alive was tennis.
“Tennis was the only thing that kept me happy. So I went back to playing, and I discovered a new passion and how much this game gave me.
“No matter what happens outside of tennis, I’ll always have that passion and that game. That’s where everything started as a little girl, since I was six years old. And that’s something no one can take away from me.”
Following the Covid shutdown, Lepchenko also restarted her collaboration with former ATP World No.65 Pere Riba from Spain, with whom she had worked two years previously before disagreements over where to be based ended their partnership. This time round, Riba was willing to relocate to the US.
“We speak the same language and I trust him,” said Lepchenko. “He understands my feelings and my game. I think we are similar in game style as well.
“I used to think that the key to my winning was the player, yourself. But what I’m finding out lately is that yes, you have to be your own person, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses, you have to recognise these things yourself. But it’s a huge difference if you have someone who can bring so much to your game, and luckily I was able to find that coach.”
After Lepchenko and Riba moved to Florida, she got a call from another old friend.
“Serena [Williams] invited me to practice with her and we started hitting,” said Lepchenko. “She gave me some confidence, I would say.
“She’s a great friend and she encouraged me to keep going. Just seeing that I could hit with her and seeing her play on the big stages when she’s older than me – that inspired me as well, to keep going and keep dreaming big.”
Lepchenko played her first pro match in 2000, went on to reach a career high of World No 19 in October 2012 and was runner-up to Karolina Pliskova at Seoul 2014, the only WTA final of her career to date.
In that time, Lepchenko’s biggest trophies were a trio of ITF W75/W80 titles at College Park 2006, Phoenix 2010 and Macon 2018.
Now ranked World No 152, she had not been inside the Top 100 since July 2018 but Lepchenko’s form has ticked upwards with Riba by her side.
She qualified for Roland Garros in June and upset Zhang Shuai in the first round for her first Grand Slam main draw win since Wimbledon 2017 but then she was dealt a blow when Riba tested positive for Covid-19 and was unable to travel with her.
This week in Charleston was the first that Riba has been able to accompany Lepchenko again and the effect was clear as she stormed into the final without dropping a set, defeating Carol Zhao, Tori Kinard and Hanna Chang before upsetting No 2 seed Lauren Davis 7-5 6-3 in the semi-finals.
The title match would be a more gruelling affair, clocking in at 2 hours 59 minutes, her second marathon around the three-hour mark in as many weeks – just 12 days previously, she had bested Marina Melnikova 4-6 7-6(4) 6-3 in 3 hours 8 minutes in the first round of Gdynia.
Against World No 229 Loeb, who was playing the biggest final of her career to date, Lepchenko opted to grind her more aggressive opponent down for much of the match, which paid off in the first set that was eventually sealed in a tiebreak despite failing to serve it out twice.
Loeb hit back, however, taking the second set and a 3-1 lead in the decider, but was hindered by 10 double-faults and a 48% first serve percentage compared to Lepchenko’s 72%.
The 26-year old University of North Carolina alumna and 2015 NCAA singles champion, had dropped just one set en route to the final, overcoming Katrina Scott 6-1 4-6 6-3 in the second round.
Loeb’s willingness to change direction and go for down-the-line winners proved a tactic that saw her dominate the middle passage of play, but Lepchenko, with her back to the wall, also upped her aggression to turn the third set around, winning 5 of the last 6 games thanks to her significantly bolder shot selection in the home stretch, her heavy forehand doing particular damage to come through a crucial five-deuce hold for 4-3 and her drop-shot proving key as she made her way to 5-4.
In the final game, Loeb’s errors let her down to concede the break, and a netted forehand sealed victory on Lepchenko’s 2nd championship point.
Nonetheless, it was a breakthrough week for Loeb, who scored straight-sets wins over Whitney Osuigwe, Liang En-Shuo and Kateryna Bondarenko to make her first WTA 125 final.
Other noteworthy performances included Scott’s stunning 6-0 6-3 upset of No 1 seed Madison Brengle in the first round, a first Top 100 win for the 17-year-old World No 384, who had previously made waves by reaching the second round of the 2020 US Open and stretching Amanda Anisimova to three sets there.
The tournament also saw the return to action of former World No 46 Tatjana Maria following her second maternity leave, the German having given birth to daughter Cecilia, a sister for Charlotte, in April. Maria, 33, lost 6-2 6-4 to Han Na-Lae in the first round.
Another mother-of-two, Bondarenko, got back on the right track with a semi-final run after the Ukrainian upset No 3 seed Maddison Inglis 6-3 6-2 in the second round and bested Emma Navarro 6-3 6-3 in the quarter-finals to mark the first time she has scored three consecutive wins at any level since Eastbourne 2018.
The doubles title was captured by the unseeded Liang & Rebecca Marino, who triumphed 5-7 7-5 [10-7] over top seeds Erin Routliffe & Aldila Sutjiadi in the final.
It was the first time the Chinese Taipei-Canadian pair had played together, and the biggest doubles title for both.
Liang, 20, also reached the singles quarter-finals before falling to Loeb, while Marino, 30, lost in the second round to Davis.